Ever since last May, when four men were arrested in the beating of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, their impending trial has been paired in the public mind with the federal trial of four policemen accused of beating Rodney G. King.
Despite the odds against it, despite the fact that they were proceeding through different court systems, the two cases seemed destined--perhaps dangerously so--to be tried at the same time, almost one year after the first King verdicts sparked rioting.
Then, two weeks ago, a Superior Court judge all but ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers for three men charged with beating Denny to talk to each other about plea bargains. The fourth defendant, Gary Williams, 34, has pleaded guilty to trying to pick Denny's pockets and to beating and robbing another motorist.
For a brief time, it seemed that the city would be spared at least one of the two volatile trials. But like everything else in this case, things may not be so easy to resolve.
Although more than 90% of criminal cases in Los Angeles County end in "case settlements"--the euphemism used in legal circles for plea bargains--there are many factors undermining such a fate in the Denny case.
Indeed, after a single round of telephone calls, talks between prosecutors and defense lawyers ended last week, according to those involved. Nobody is saying that the door to negotiations cannot be reopened, but both sides say they doubt that it will be.
In cutting off settlement talks so early, it may be that the lawyers are playing a public game of hardball and will negotiate in earnest as the April 12 trial date draws near.
Some observers, however, say that the case has become too big, too emotional and too politically charged to be resolved without a public airing.
Isabelle Gunning, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law, said many factors "are probably mitigating against" any plea-bargain agreement, including the position taken by defense lawyers that their clients are victims of racial discrimination and are being unfairly prosecuted.
District Atty. Gil Garcetti in an interview last week deemed the prospects of plea bargains very unlikely.
"There is no meeting of the minds or anything close to a meeting of the minds," he said.
J. Patrick Maginnis, who represents Antoine Eugene Miller, 20, concurred: "At this point, I think everyone should be prepared to go to trial."
At a court hearing last week, Maginnis angrily objected to the fact that Judge John W. Ouderkirk even raised the issue of plea bargains. Talking about plea bargains in public, he said, could taint potential jurors.
Maginnis' client and the other defendants, Damian Monroe Williams, 20, and Henry Keith Watson, 28, are charged with 28 offenses against 13 motorists at Florence and Normandie avenues in the first hours of the riots.
The most serious charges against them, which could lead to life sentences if proved, are attempted murder and aggravated mayhem in the case of Denny, the most severely beaten victim. Images of the attacks were etched into the minds of television viewers across the nation who watched them broadcast live.
A key piece of prosecution evidence is an edited version of 40 hours of videotape of the scene taken by news crews and passersby. Defense lawyers fought last week to keep the new 36-minute version out of court, maintaining that editing distorts events and makes people's actions appear orchestrated.
With the exception of a few minutes, Ouderkirk said, the tape is admissible.
Garcetti said none of the defendants will "get a bargain" in a plea bargain.
"I must insist based on my evaluation. . . . that there be substantial prison time before we could discuss a settlement," he said. "Defense lawyers are of another mind and so we are anticipating going forward with the trial."
The defendants' lawyers maintain that the prosecutors' insistence on charges that carry life sentences is unreasonable.
"I'm ready to try the case," Maginnis said. "I think we have a not guilty verdict for my client. They have a very weak case against him."
Edi M.O. Faal, the lead lawyer for Williams, said the two most serious charges against his client "should not be any basis for a negotiation."
Watson's lead lawyer, Earl C. Broady, said: "My client is facing life imprisonment for putting his foot on Denny's neck."
Charles Weisselberg, a clinical professor of law at USC Law Center, said both sides may legitimately believe that they will prevail.
"There are enough legal issues in this case that the defense lawyers may be thinking they will have grounds for a good appeal that would be lost if they pleaded guilty," Weisselberg said.
The prosecution may "realize they would have to make significant concessions to the defense to make a deal work and they know the public would not stand for that," he said.
Gunning noted that the case has such a high profile that any plea bargain would stir controversy, especially given perceptions that the Denny beating defendants should be treated no differently than the four police officers accused in federal court of depriving King of his civil rights.
Joe Hicks, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agrees.
"It is one thing to talk about plea bargains, but it is another to say whether they can reach an agreement," Hicks said. "It has become larger than simply a trial to decide whether some individuals at a particular point committed a particular crime."
For some, it is the criminal justice system that is on trial.
Critics of the case contend that it was supercharged from the beginning by former LAPD Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who donned a bulletproof vest and, along with scores of officers and federal agents, executed a sunrise raid to personally arrest Williams--with television cameras rolling.
That was in May, when then-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner was facing a tough reelection fight. According to critics, Reiner only made matters worse by charging the defendants with multiple felonies that included, at the outset, torture.
This month, Faal indicated that a major feature of his defense will be to argue that the defendants--all of whom are black--were grossly overcharged as part of a longstanding pattern of racial discrimination by county prosecutors.
That contention is at the heart of arguments given by supporters and family members of the defendants who have formed an active defense committee for them.
Committee members have called for an amnesty for all defendants in light of what they view as the comparatively light charges county prosecutors filed against four Los Angeles police officers when they stood trial in state court for beating King in 1991. The officers' acquittals on all but one count justify freeing the Denny beating defendants, they say.
Naomi Bradley, a co-chairwoman of the defense committee, opposes plea bargains for Denny's accused attackers, saying that such a compromise guarantees prison time for the defendants and gives Reiner what he hoped for all along.
"This is something we are used to, them overcharging us and then encouraging plea bargains," Bradley said. "They've gotten the community all riled up, and now they just want to dismiss the whole thing."
Hers is a stance that many in and out of the legal system find hard to swallow.
"Justice is getting a bad name in all this," said Joe Duff, president of the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
The defendants deserve no special treatment, Duff said, because they are no better than members of racist mobs in the South 30 years ago who attacked black people.
Williams and the others "are a symbol of something," Duff said. "but there are plenty of others you can find every day who are more appropriate to defend."
Plea bargains in the case, he said, would be a "blessing in disguise."
That leaves him at odds with most Angelenos, according to a Times poll taken this year.
In the poll, 55% of respondents opposed plea bargains.
For that reason, Garcetti, who is new to the office and is still shaping his image for Los Angeles County's electorate, settling the case carries major career risks. It also carries some appeal.
A settlement could avoid a high-stakes, nationally televised trial just months into Garcetti's first term--one that, no matter what the outcome, is certain to anger one segment of the community, and could trigger more civil disorder as well.
A politically viable negotiated settlement could position Garcetti to argue that he had not only brought swift justice but also saved taxpayers huge court costs, according to Los Angeles political consultant Rick Taylor.
"He (could) talk about how he was able to work out this delicate and sensitive situation . . . and it protected the entire city and community as a whole," Taylor said.
The ideal situation for Garcetti--one that would help inoculate him against criticism--would be for Denny and his prominent black attorney, Johnnie Cochran, to quickly endorse the plea bargain, Taylor said.
Garcetti and Cochran, a former top prosecutor in the district attorney's office, have known each other for many years.
"If Johnnie Cochran comes out and says I think it's fair--my client is satisfied. . . . I think Garcetti skates by, in almost every community," Taylor said.
Garcetti, however, said he has entertained no such notion.
"We have 13 victims," Garcetti said. The "other victims . . . were horribly beaten, yet I am not going to go to each one of them" and ask for their endorsement.
Eric Rose, an LAPD reserve office and political consultant to local conservative candidates, said a plea bargain in the Denny beating case "would be a political murder-suicide" for Garcetti.
"The reason the D.A. will have trouble plea bargaining the Denny case is simple," he said. "Armchair jurors in virtually every American home equipped with a television have already found the L.A. 4 guilty. The public wants to see the officers tried in a court of law. And the public wants to see the Reginald Denny defendants tried for the act that they committed."